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Sharon Starts Preparations for Relocating Gaza Settlers - 2004-02-02

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he has begun preparations for the removal of 17 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon says the plan is part of a long-term vision in which he believes no Jews would remain in the territory.

Mr. Sharon says the planned removal of 17 settlements is just the first phase of a broader plan, under which all of the estimated 7,500 Jews in the Gaza Strip would be relocated.

The prime minister, speaking at a meeting of his Likud Party, said he is, working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza.

He gave no timetable for the implementation of his plan.

According to Mr. Sharon, the first step would be to ask for the backing of the settlers, some of whom, he says, are third-generation residents of the territory.

He said he would ask the settlers to voluntarily relocate to areas inside Israel and those with farms would be re-established in agricultural areas.

He did not say what the government would do if the settlers refused to leave the area of their own free will.

Mr. Sharon said the 17 settlements earmarked under the first phase of the plan are those Israel has decided it would not want to keep even under a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. He says he has ordered officials to start preparing for the relocation of the residents.

He told the Hebrew daily newspaper Ha'aretz earlier that he intends to present his plan to U.S. President George Bush later this month during a visit to Washington.

He said that one of the issues he intends to raise with Mr. Bush is the possibility of the U.S. administration providing financial support for the evacuation of Jewish settlements.